German network to integrate refugees, one friend at a time
As Germany aims to integrate over one million refugees and migrants who arrived last year, one Berlin non-profit group argues the first step is simple: 'Start with a Friend'.
That message is the name of the small but fast-growing organisation which teams up newcomers who fled war and misery with local volunteers who can lend them a hand as they start their new lives.
"At our first meeting, there were 10 people," said its founder Franziska Birnbach. "And then, when more and more people arrived in Germany... last year, we were literally inundated with offers (from volunteers), and it hasn't stopped since."
The concept mirrors language-study "tandem" partnerships between locals and foreigners, except that the emphasis is beyond swapping vocabulary and grammar tips.
In Start with a Friend, the local volunteers also help migrants find internships, jobs or apartments, or to navigate the bureaucratic thicket of German asylum procedures.
The aim is to also help them get to know Germany better and, in an exchange of equals, build relationships that are mutually rewarding and long-lasting.
Last year the group facilitated some 200 partnerships, and it aims for more than 1,000 this year.
Such has been its success that Birnbach, 27, and her project partner Sarah Rosenthal, 31, have now left their jobs to devote themselves full-time to "Start with a Friend".
The group now has seven coordinators and has branched out from Berlin to the cities of Cologne and Freiburg, with plans to also launch soon in Hamburg, Munich and Dresden.
- 'I have everything' -
In the cosy kitchen of a central Berlin apartment, Nina Winzen, 27, is chatting and cooking with her new Syrian friend Ehab Masood, 26, as "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime" by British pop band The Korgis is playing.
"When I met Nina, I asked her: why are you doing this for me?" said Masood, speaking in the German he has learnt since arriving in Berlin more than one year ago. "She said: 'I have everything in Germany.'"
Winzen added: "Here we grow up with such a privileged background, we have so much. And, parallel to that, people arrive with nothing and are trying to build a new life."
It seemed only logical to her to get involved in the programme, she said.
"We speak a lot about Syria," said Winzen. "We hear about it everyday, we see images on television. But to have direct contact with someone who is actually from there opens up a whole new perspective.
"For me, this exchange is a real enrichment, not only because of what I bring to Ehab, but also because of the things he teaches me."
- 'This can be done' -
The project in people-to-people cultural bridge building comes as Germany takes a breather from last year's mass influx and searches for practical ways to turn into reality Chancellor Angela Merkel's motto of "we can do it".
Merkel's coalition government last Thursday approved a package of measures governing the integration of refugees, their rights and duties, which she labelled "a first in the history" of post-war Germany.
"This can be done," agreed Winzen, insisting however that "this will only be possible together" and "if everybody plays their part".
Merkel's liberal refugee policy has drawn heavy fire from within her own conservative camp and fuelled the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party.
Rosenthal, of Start with a Friend, said that "this uncertainty which many people feel and that leads some to vote for extreme parties is very much related to a lack of knowledge about new arrivals".
She deplored a growing trend toward generalisations about migrants, especially in the wake of sexual and other attacks by mostly North African men against hundreds of women in Cologne on New Years Eve.
Rosenthal said she hopes groups like hers will help Germans and, more broadly, Europeans "realise that 'I don't have to be afraid'" and understand that a migrant "is a person who is completely normal, like me, who wants to take care of his family and build a future for them".
In short, she said, people will understand that a migrant can be no more and no less than "my new neighbour".
AFP / Expatica